Let me take you back 35 years gentle reader – there is a reason for this, please have patience. In my second year as a student at that all-hallowed Oxford University place what I attended, there was an International Festival of the Arts held at all sorts of teeny little venues scattered round the town – a kind of #oxfringe I suppose. One of the acts in particular attracted the attention of one of my friends, because they were both from the same neck of the woods: in the middle of nowhere in deepest darkest Minnesota. So he, another American friend from Kentucky, an English mate and me all decided to go and see this guy do his stand-up comedy routine. His name was (still is, I believe) Allen Brookins-Brown. It’s a name unlikely to mean anything to you, but he was an absolute hoot. We’d already had a few drinks by the time the show started, so we were more than ready to have some fun. Totally surreal, fantastic comic timing and we laughed our heads off all evening. The slightly embarrassing thing was that the four of us made up 50% of the entire audience. After the show was over, my Minnesotan friend approached him and said we had all enjoyed the show enormously and we would be honoured (I suppose that would have been “honored”) if we could take him out for a drink. Thus it was that we spent another hour or two in the company of this hilarious man, getting steadily drunker and drunker, and indeed I believe my Minnesotan friend and he are still in contact to this day. No mean achievement that, when you remember that the worldwide web wasn’t even a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye at that stage, so all done without the aid of social media.
Why am I telling you all this? Because last Thursday we had the pleasure of seeing Kevin Dewsbury’s Out Now show, on its penultimate airing before he wraps it in tissue paper and consigns it to the bottom of a spare-room drawer. And, sadly, the audience was very small. Bigger than the eight of us who saw A B-B, but not that much more. It’s a huge shame because, no matter how clever the material or how gifted the comedian, there is inevitably a lack of atmosphere with so small a house, and audience members become much more self-conscious. Should I laugh here? Did I laugh too loud? Should I laugh louder to show my support? Am I the only one laughing? Am I the only one not laughing? Then you start thinking about what the performer is thinking about you. With so few people in the audience, there’s no hiding place. And so it can go on. Mind you, it’s worse if you see a play as part of a very small audience; that can be really embarrassing. About fifteen years ago Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a revival of There’s a Girl in my Soup at the New Theatre Oxford – it had been one of the first plays I’d seen in London when I was a kid so I’d always wanted to see it again – but there were only about 25 of us in this massive theatre, which made it one of the weirdest (and not in a good way) theatrical experiences ever. Fortunately with a show as enjoyable as Out Now that self-consciousness takes a very back seat.
Anyway I digress (as I often do). We’ve seen Kevin Dewsbury a couple of times at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton when he has acted as stand-in compere, and whenever you see him you know you’re in absolutely safe hands. I’ve always really enjoyed his relaxed, thoughtful style of comedy, and I have been looking forward to seeing him perform his own act, rather than compering, for a couple of years now. He’d created Out Now for the Edinburgh festival last summer where it received some very favourable reviews, so I was pleased to discover he was bringing the show down to Leicester as part of the Dave’s Comedy Festival.
You’re welcomed into the gig to the sound of Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”, which I haven’t heard for decades. I was impressed by its bittersweet lyrics and its walloping sense of irony. One of the many things for which that song is responsible was a society at London University when I was doing my postgrad called “Glad to be Green”; which was ostensibly a group of people who cared for the environment but was actually an excuse for a fortnightly organised pub crawl the length of the Mile End Road.
I’m digressing yet again. Out Now is a highly autobiographical account of Mr Dewsbury’s life as a “blokey gay” man (his words), the manner in which he came out, and his battles with mental illness that were all tied up with his internal angst that beset him up till about five years ago. I was really struck by the personal nature of this show. When a comedian comes on stage and does a standard set about his mother-in-law, his wife, his kids, his parents, his sex life, his childhood, etc, etc and etc, unless you actually know this person, you’ve got no idea whatsoever whether it’s completely true, pure fantasy or somewhere in between. My guess is that the germ of an idea probably comes from the truth but then gets embellished and ironed out to such an extent that it simply becomes an act rather than a confessional. But with Kevin Dewsbury you believe every word he says is true, which creates a real bond between the audience and the performer.
He talks about gay life in general – the terminologies that straight people normally don’t get to hear, who takes what role in the love making department, what happens in gay venues, and life with Grindr (which is apparently now compulsory). He also takes a mock- (at least I think it’s mock) pop at straight men’s “respect” for women; and points out the innate sexism in the fact that the straight version of the aforementioned “who’s nearby and wants sex” app is Blendr, which name subtly envisages the woman making smoothies or hummus when she’s not putting out. Mind you, five years ago I would have thought Grindr was a kitchen tool for preparing peppercorns.
Mrs C and I are lucky enough to have loads of fantastic gay friends, primarily (but not exclusively) due to our socialising in the Eurovision fan scene. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some of our best friends are heterosexual. So I’m not sure if there could have been anything that Mr Dewsbury could have said that would have shocked or surprised us, but I can certainly think of some people who would have wriggled uncomfortably in their seats at this hour of gay agenda material that would probably have had him banged up at Her Majesty’s pleasure under the late unlamented Section 28. Naturally, his attitude to his subject is both personal and respectful, yet he scatterbombs his routine with little, old-fashioned, not-entirely-gay-friendly observations as a kind of contrapuntal leitmotif (pretentious, moi?) which emphasises the change of attitudes prevalent since the Bernard Manning years. It also acts as a rather nice reductio ad absurdam (I am getting carried away) – for example when a serious, thoughtful and politically correct observation ends up being a bumming joke. This is all interspersed with some entertaining comedy songs and the surprising realisation that he’s actually quite a good singer.
It ought to be hard to make mental illness funny without being dismissive or callous about it, but Mr Dewsbury has it down to a fine art – rather like Ruby Wax in Losing It, you can really break down the stigmatising barriers with mental illness if, as a sufferer, you simply but eloquently express precisely the thoughts that are going through your mind. Mr Dewsbury’s psychosis meant that all of his senses were extraordinarily heightened so that just the presence of a banana in his room meant that it took on huge significance for him – its smell, and indeed its shape, getting way too big for its boots. We never did find out if he ate it. Combining his very open account of his mental health issues with jokes about penises brings us back to those ironic “Glad to be Gay” lyrics. The overwhelming feeling at the end of the gig is that without question it is a funny show, but also a rather moving insight into a disturbed mind that’s fortunately no longer disturbed. A very honest and frank evening’s entertainment, and I can’t wait to see what new material he’s going to come up with!